Nazem Kadri is at the forefront of the Toronto Maple Leafs and faces the largest challenge of playing career thus far. He has one year to prove he deserves a spot on the team going forward, and all eyes are on him this year.
Toronto - October 27, 2015 - If you are measuring the success of the 2015/16 Toronto Maple Leafs on how many games they win, you are wrong, or at the very least uninformed. It is that simple, and there is no real rationale to the contrary. Wins and losses bear no real reflection on the successes, or lack thereof, of the 2015-2016 season for Toronto. The only thing that matters this year is how this team plays, regardless if they win the game.
I’m sure there are many of you out there that feel this sentiment isn’t grounded in ‘what hockey is about’. That all that matters is the wins and losses and a strong push for the Stanley Cup. This mentality though embodies everything that has plagued the Leafs’ since the end of the Sundin/Pat Quinn era in Toronto. I included in that the all too common mentality that we need more ‘old school’ guys on the roster. In essence, what the Leafs’ are missing is Colton Orr. This is again, not only wrong, but part of the problem that has plagued this team for a decade.
We have had Colton Orr on the roster, we have sold draft picks for all star players in attempts to accelerate the success of this team. Right now wouldn’t you rather have Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin, as opposed to a couple of years of Phil Kessel followed by his underwhelming departure? Seguin by the way, is currently tied for the lead in the NHL scoring race. Isn’t it better to have a 4th line that has players like Nick Spaling and P.A. Parenteau who can actually score and play effectively, then a pair of fists who couldn’t play offense or defense? Well if you want all these improvements you have to concede that the team will be bad, and as a result, will require a new means of measuring progress and success through the rebuilding process. So what do we look for? What can we look at to gauge how this team is progressing?
The first thing I look at is shots and shot attempts, not because it is the single best way to measure the success of the team or any idealistic reason, but because it has been a serious shortcoming for the Leafs’ the past few seasons. Last year the Leafs were outshot on a historic level, they were an unmitigated disaster. After 8 games last year, Toronto sat 24th in the NHL in shot attempts percentage with a Shot Attempts For percentage at 47%. Simply put this means they were only taking 47% of the shot attempts per game. They finished last season at 26th overall in this category, with 46.4%. This year after 8 games they sit 4th with 54% shot attempts for. That is a huge improvement with implications in all area's of their game. They have gone from regularly being out shot by a significant margin, to outshooting their opponents by a significant margin. So why isn’t this translating into goals and wins? Well mainly because the Leafs’ are not a good team talent wise, not yet at least. They lack the skilled players who can turn shot attempts into goals, but that will change in the coming seasons. For now though, we can look at this number and see change, we can see growth in the team and how they are playing.
There are more metrics to look at, but allow me to foray into the realm of the ‘eye test’. Those immeasurable elements of a team that are needed to push for a championship. The thing that has stood out to me the most, and the thing that made me want to write this article, is this team’s resolve. Their ability to get hit, and get back up swinging. It is a necessary mentality of every single champion in sports, regardless if it is a team sport, or an individual one. No champion has ever been crowned who did not possess the ability to respond to adversity. For the first time in nearly a decade the Leafs’ are showing resolve and poise in the face of adversity on a regular basis. Nothing has me more excited for the future of this team then how they have responded to the challenges they have faced thus far.
The October 24th game against Montreal really exemplified a lot of what Leaf fans need to pay attention to this year in my opinion. The Leafs outshot Montreal 52-27 and demonstrated strong resolve consistently throughout the game, especially though in the 2nd period. Lars Eller scored for Montreal at 1:54 of the second period to take a 2-0 lead, however Komarov would score for Toronto at 2:37, just 43 seconds later. Montreal would again score 1:43 later to make the score 3-1, but again the Leafs scored 2:12 after Montreal’s goal to bring it back to 3-2. And even when they don’t score in response, they still had the ability to at least rally and control the pace of play. For the vast majority of that game the Leafs' were in charge ,and dictated the pace of play.
What Randy Carlyle coached team would allow a goal less than 2 minutes into a period and respond like this Leafs team? Perhaps now and again, but this team, this Babcock led team, responds like this nearly every game. Win or lose they show up and they compete.
I know it is rough watching this team lose. I know it sucks watching the Leafs’ continue to descend down the standings with every passing game. As fans we hate it, nobody likes losing and if anybody has a right to be frustrated with losing it is Maple Leaf fans. With that in mind though, listen to me now; it’s about to end. We’re still a season or two away from the change taking full effect but it’s about to end. This team is learning how to respond to adversity. This team is learning how to beat a team through the execution of the coach’s system, not by the stick of an all star goal scorer. This team is learning all the characteristics that are integral to winning a championship.
The one thing it lacks is goal scoring (and maybe a goalie, Bernier and Reimer have been surprisingly disappointing so far) and they have a lot of potential goal scorer’s who will join the team in the next few years. Nylander, Kapanen, Brown and a slew of others have all shown the potential to be high level point producers in the NHL. When they join the Leafs, and bring their scoring ability with them, they will join a team that can fight through adversity, who know how to dominate their opponent through executing the system. This team already looks better than we all know they actually are, so how good will they be when they actually have the skill we know they lack?
Sure, wins feel good. But does it not feel better to see the direction that this team is going in given where they are coming from? Can we not celebrate the growth, the changes this team has made for the better instead of being childish and pissed off because we didn’t get immediate gratification? Perhaps that’s the curse of the Toronto Maple Leafs, perhaps that’s why it has been nearly 50 years since we’ve won. Maybe if we learned how to look past the wins and loses we wouldn’t be such a miserable, pessimistic fan base. Maybe once we overcome that adversity, we can finally have a team worth celebrating. Maybe that is when we will deserve having a team worth celebrating.